Makani Power, long one of the leaders in the growing field of airborne wind energy, now has a very large and rich parent. A statement on the company's website announced yesterday that Google would acquire Makani for an undisclosed amount; Google—or more specifically, Google.org, the company's philanthropic arm—had previously backed Makani to the tune of US $15 million.
Makani makes a kite-like wind energy device, essentially a fixed wing with small turbines on board. The wing is tethered to the ground and flies in vertical circles to generate power, which is sent back down the tether to the ground, where it could be sent on to the grid. In its statement, Makani wrote that "the timing couldn't be better, as we completed the first ever autonomous all-modes flight with our Wing 7 prototype last week." The video below shows that full test sped up five times.
Airborne wind power takes advantage of the fact that wind speeds are higher and more consistent as one gains altitude. Makani's current design would fly at around 500 meters; going even higher could garner even more energy. The recently-tested prototype is rated at 30 kilowatts capacity, but the company is on record as wanting to build a 600-kw wing that would have a wingspan of 92 feet. Google's money could potentially move that goal closer, quicker.
The purchase also may allay concerns about the loss, last fall, of Makani's founder and primary engineering pioneer, Corwin Hardham. Hardham, only 38 at the time, passed away unexpectedly at his desk. When I met him only a month or so earlier, he excitedly told me about plans to use even the 92-foot, 600-kw turbine as a mere starting point on the way to 5 megawatts.
The fact that Google was the one to purchase the company isn't all that surprising, given their ongoing efforts with renewable energy. The company has so far invested more than $1 billion toward renewables, including backing BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah solar plant soon to open in the Mojave, the ambitious Atlantic Wind Connection transmission "backbone" project (see also here), and others. Though airborne wind ideas have an air (no pun intended) of the far-fetched about them, having Google at your back can make even the most quixotic (this time, pun intended) scheme seem practical.